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A Monumental Pride: The Legalization of Gay Marriage and the NYC Gay Pride Parade

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Gay Pride New York 2011: A Monumental Celebration

Part One: Passage of the Gay Marriage Bill

A Marriage Equality Float during the Gay Pride Parade in NYC. Photo by Jennifer B. Brown It’s 6:30pm on Friday, June 24th and my partner is virtually tugging on my arm to go out to dinner and meet our friends later to celebrate. Instead, I am glued to the computer, to the live streaming video of the NY State Senate, to brief rules committee meetings and flipping back to Facebook to update my live feed. There is pressure here. Not just in the senate, not just to get out the door, but to my friends who often refer to me as their primary news source due to my Facebook feed. I am live blogging the senate, in a sense, linking to articles on the latest counts in favor of gay marriage and providing updates from the live video feed. Another break. Another Rules Committee meeting.

With each call of the session to rest, the impatience is palpable. I cannot sit still, but I cannot look away. I am texting with some who are unable to be in front of a computer and I keep giving it (and my partner) 5 more minutes. She looks at me and says we should go to The City for Pride. I’d previously canceled the trip in favor of doing some more local things for the weekend, but on the eve of the most celebratory Pride I’ve ever attended, we shuffle our schedule around to free up the weekend, just in case. The last update I post is the information that it might take a few hours for it to come to a vote.

Flash forward a few hours and we are enjoying a glass of champagne (the finest $7 can buy), at the first Pride event in Ithaca (at Delilah’s on Cayuga) I’ve ever attended (or seen go beyond the planning stages) and preemptively celebrate with the partygoers. My role has changed as I’m awaiting texts from friends who are now at home watching the vote with the important instructions to text me the minute it goes through. I get a text that says they are voting and we convince the bar to turn on the television. The cheers go up early, preceding the final vote by minutes and the place erupts into hugs and dancing, glasses toasting, and couples hugging. My phone lights up with texts from friends all over New York. Within minutes my partner and I receive two offers to officiate at our ceremony (it’s not coming yet folks) and I hug a friend who went to Canada (with her stimulus funds) to marry her partner. I am watching Christopher Street on the flat screen. I am watching Governor Andrew Cuomo, beaming, at a press conference. It is a moment for him to be proud; it is a moment for New York to be proud. I think of the friends who went to Connecticut a few months back to get married and know that the impromptu and forced destination weddings will no longer be an issue. New York is now the destination and we are already here.

We stay out later than we have in ages because it is hard to leave, because I appreciate seeing the Ithaca community finally getting together, because it is a monumental night, because it seems as if the celebration will not end. While we’d like to hang on, we’re getting up early to head to The City. We have another group of friends to see, marches to walk, parades to watch and a whole city to celebrate with.

Part Two:  To the City and The Dyke March

The Dyke March in NYC. Photo by Selwa ShamyWe wake Saturday morning in Ithaca and it feels like a birthday, which arguably can bring mixed emotions, and in this case does as well. There is the vague feeling of something different in the air, the expectation and anticipation of celebration, and even a mild anxiety, though not about aging, but about the potential for the crowd and celebration to attract folks who don’t necessarily have the same feelings about the celebration as I do. Everything seems to move in slow motion. Perhaps it is the humidity. Perhaps it is the lack of coffee. Perhaps it is the desire to savor every moment of this weekend, as we are all aware that this is our time, and it may not last.

It turns out that 4 hours in a car and an extra hour sitting in traffic at the George Washington Bridge will cure this feeling, and make one thankful that there wasn’t a lot of coffee involved in the morning rush out the door and down the highway. It will however increase the anxiety level.

It is not our first time traveling down to the city together, we did so last year for Pride as well and one thing I love about traveling with a significant other is learning all sorts of new things, like she hates (fears) tunnels, which means we now take the bridge. She also learned that I do not do well with directions when first getting into the city…it is, inevitably, where the directions will go awry. It did however provide me the opportunity to show more of the city, parts we hadn’t seen on our last visit (which was mostly spent in Midtown and Central Park), like Harlem as I flew down city streets from 163rd all the way to 80s, cutting through Central Park and then back up to E. 92nd where we stayed. We are certainly watching the clock, as we failed to make New York City’s Dyke March last year and really want to meet up with friends and participate this year.

Well, truthfully, we did participate last year, but that was only because the cab we took to meet family for dinner couldn’t make it further downtown because of the march and ended up dropping us off near 24th Street, only to have us turn and see the march coming towards us. We jumped in for a few blocks, ran into an old friend, and then veered off towards the restaurant as they headed towards Washington Square Park. This year we are determined to make it, and we are cutting it close.

I should have been a NYC cabbie (my partner, Amy, may say differently), working the lanes of traffic like a weaver works threads into cloth, I am flying down the streets with the traffic gods clearly smiling down upon me. “I really wish that truck would move out of this lane,” I say, and when it does, Amy comments, “Quick, wish for something bigger.” I do, but I do not tell her. I do not tell her that I’m wishing for an amazing weekend that feels like a celebration that is free from hatred and worry. And I am wishing for us to make the march in time.

We arrive at the hotel just in time to receive the flurry texts from friends who are waiting for us at Bryant Square Park, where the march begins and assure them we are on our way. It’s the quickest hotel check in, cleanup turn around we are capable of and we are back out the door, hailing a cab, saying only “Get us as close as you can to 40th and 5th, please.”

When he drops us off, we can already hear the drums, the rhythmic pulse which marks the beginning of the march; we see the green shirted marshals, hands linked, already blocking cross streets and the policemen lining the route. We also see the crowd control gates to cordon off the march and the crowds beginning to line 5th Avenue. They are a mix of supporters and confused tourists. Camera flashes ring out from the tops of double-decker buses and for a moment one might believe we are the reason they have come to New York. They cheer us. They wave. They ask friends to pose. They seem, for the most part, as excited as we are. There are horns and chants as we work our way down 5th Avenue.

Protest during the Dyke March. Photo by Shelley LevineThere are a few protesters. Much to the credit and creativity of a bystander, at least one is briefly silenced (see photo). For the most part they are met with hugging couples and a chorus of “Going to the Chapel.” Slowly, and in my experience as is normal, the march slows to a shuffle as people work their way through the crowds greeting old friends and chatting, taking photos and erupting in more cheers and chants. Traffic control is a tricky issue, but many of us recall a time when the entirety of 5th Avenue was shut down for The March. I remember in 2005 women marching, walking, running, topless or in costumes, in street clothes and dressed up, taking up the breadth of the street. Now, the street doesn’t open up until we’re really far downtown and the arch that marks Washington Square Park appears on the horizon.

As we approach the park, the spray of the fountain appears, the cheers become louder and it is only a prelude of what is to come throughout the city, for the rest of the weekend. As the area opens up and women (and supporters) pour into the park through the archway, there is more spontaneous song and dance. There are interviews with news crews about the significance of Friday’s vote and clusters of people gather to make plans for the rest of the evening.

Years ago, I would have attended several of the parties planned for Saturday night, gone to a club, packed myself like a sardine against a bar and enjoyed the thumping of dance music, but this year, we are all craving something a little more personal. We are all, it seems, craving time with our family of friends, a simple toast, a shared meal, and time to enjoy each other and talk about what we’ve missed since we all last saw one another. We retire to Van Daag, for some of the city’s most interesting cocktails and then off to share a meal. I’ll spare you the details of the meal, as it involved the craziest Indian restaurant I’ve ever been to, tight and small, decorated with string lights (think Christmas meets Tijuana) and the Bhangra version of Happy Birthday on repeat. The food is good; the company is better.

We end the night walking from downtown to midtown, stopping for a moment on a corner to look up at the Empire State Building lit up like a rainbow. No one speaks. We stop and appreciate that though we are in a smaller group, in a way, the entire city is celebrating with us, seeing us, recognizing us. And there is still more to come. We are not done, on so many levels.

Part Three: The Parade

2011 Gay Pride Parade. Photo by Jennifer B. BrownSunday morning on the Upper East Side feels exactly like what I imagine a summer weekend morning feels like on the Upper East Side all the time. I get no sense that folks are aware of what’s going on just miles away. Downtown is a different world. The Village is a different world. Folks here are walking dogs, pushing strollers, jogging along the East River. Other hotel guests directed to the same diner are seated and scanning menus, and we are waiting for coffee, relishing the quiet and calm before it is all glitter and feathers and mayhem. It is both a reality and perspective check. It is a reminder that while Friday was a huge day for me, my friends, my community, for most folks it was just like any other Friday and again, I have that birthday-like feeling. I keep watching and waiting, expecting Pride to pop out at me at the strangest time, a rainbow flag, someone carrying wings, a protest sign in a window, but finally settle in to breakfast and the quiet. I think I am still reeling from the lights of the Indian restaurant the evening before, the incessant din of the city, and here, in this little corner, I will need to recharge.

We pack the car, agreeing that moving it to midtown is best for our departure, there is work on Monday morning and a 4-hour drive home ahead and it’s best to be prepared. We agree to meet friends on the corner of 8th and 5th but because of traffic and security we shuffle those plans. As we make our way to the new meeting place, the grandstand at the corner of 8th and 5th announces the arrival of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Even in remembering that moment I confess to tearing up a little bit because I have never heard a Pride crowd yell and cheer as loudly as they did at that moment, not even when the Queer Eye for the Straight Guys drove by the year of their first season on Bravo. They wave signs reading “Promise kept” and I turn to Amy and say, “I hope they are feeling all of that love,” because it is palpable, because I can feel it from the crowd, and I can feel it in myself. I race ahead to try to snap a photo but the crowd is too frenzied, there are hands clapping above heads, there are people rushing to crowd control gates as if Lady Gaga herself were walking down 8th Street.

2011 Gay Pride Parade. Photo by Jennifer B. BrownThankfully, they did not pop out of an egg a la Gaga, though that may have been the only thing that would have garnered even louder cheers.

The weather is slightly overcast and not too warm and we are thankful as last year it was nearly 90 and the sun was shining in full force. The only thing worse than watching a parade in the sun for 3 hours is marching 30 blocks in the same weather in 6-inch heels, a ton of makeup and an outfit made of feathers, or leather, or lace or all of the above. We have a much better spot than in years past; we are flush against the gates controlling the crowd with a perfect view and make it to the spot just in time to see the parade’s Grand Marshals Dan Savage and Terry Miller, creators of the It Gets Better Project pass by.

In my experience, there’s often been a disconnect between the club floats, pounding out dance music, adorned equally with scantily clad men and women and drag queens and the political organizations, but this year, they get equal attention, equal time, and plenty of applause. From the HRC and the Trevor Project, to the Harvey Milk High School and Lambda Legal everyone is out in full force. More importantly, everyone is celebrating. While we are at the end of the route, where enthusiasm normally dies a bit, everyone is still cheering and clapping and dancing. Though I am a pretty good lip reader and I’m fairly certain I see one gentleman lean over to a friend and say “You know, I just can’t wooo anymore.” He’s excused; there is plenty to go around.

2011 Gay Pride Parade. Photo by Jennifer B. BrownThere is much applause for the SAGE (Senior Action in a Gay Environment) bus, carrying elders along the parade route and we comment how amazing it must feel, how far off this day must have seemed at one point. If it is possible to imagine an already standing crowd offering a standing ovation, the two gentleman celebrating 54 years together and leading the SAGE bus via pedi-cab certainly got one.

There is also no lack of commercial enterprises either with Kiehls (thanks for the free lip balm), Macy’s (thanks for the bandana), Google (signs read “Only our computers are in the closet”) and many others representing and supporting their gay employees and customers.

It is perhaps the most celebratory Pride event I’ve attended and with good reason. There is plenty to celebrate. That said, there are also plenty of reminders that this was only one battle, there are many more to fight, many states (there were a few shout outs to California) where equality is not even on the horizon and more importantly, nationally where the Defense of Marriage Act still significantly impacts gay couples, particularly bi-national couples who cannot get green cards for partners in the same way that heterosexual couples can.

There is not enough space here for me to share all the pictures, all the joy, all the applause, all the gratitude from the weekend, but let it not be said that the gay community does not know how to throw a party, even more so when we’re given a real reason to celebrate.

After 3 hours of parade, we have our fill of feathers and sequins and “woo”ing and clapping and cheering and we are ready to retreat back to a small group, say our goodbyes and head on our way ’til we see each other again in a few months. It truly is the end to a perfect weekend. Five years ago, when Amy and I met, I warned her “Be careful, I might ask you to marry me,” and she responded, “Be careful, I might say yes.” Thank you, NY, Governor Cuomo, Mayor Bloomberg for making that possible and thank you to everyone in the city this weekend for expressing that gratitude in the grandest way possible. It was truly a monumental Pride celebration and a monumental moment in the history of not just NY, but this country.

–Jennifer B. Brown is a Contributor to The Free George. Photos by Jennifer B. Brown, Selwa Shamy and Shelley Levine.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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